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The media's false narrative about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally being a COVID-19 superspreader event

The number of rally-related COVID-19 cases was far lower than what the media claimed, study found.

Published: March 27, 2021 5:01pm

Updated: March 29, 2021 12:23pm

One of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world was still held in Sturgis, South Dakota, during the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, which the media claimed led to more than 266,000 COVID-19 cases, or nearly one in five of every case reported in America at the time. 

The number of cases came from a study by San Diego State University professors published in September, just a month following the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. 

However, the Sturgis city manager, Daniel Ainslie, said the study and other models that predicted their hospitals would be overwhelmed were wrong. 

"I think at the peak during the rally, and even after the rally, about five percent of the [hospital] beds were used for COVID," Ainslie told Sharyl Attkisson on her show, Full Measure After Hours.

The media linked anywhere from one to about five fatalities to Sturgis, but Ainslie said none were scientifically traced.

"The hard data showed that there were about 260 cases that came from here," Ainslie said. "Now, the reality was there were probably some additional cases beyond those 260 that were immediately traced here, but to try to state that there were a quarter million, that's just ridiculous, and it was fanciful, and it was just pushing their narrative."

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed the San Diego State University study.

"Results from this study should be interpreted cautiously," analysts write, adding that "the associated data analyses used to obtain nationwide estimates were relatively weak."

Last year, 460,000 bikers attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, but that was fewer than usual. Although, Ainslie said, the media used footage from previous years to make it look busier than it actually was. 

Ainslie said that "was really disappointing, because we have several live feed cameras, and we gave every media outlet permission so that they could use that, so that they could show current images. Because the vast majority of the time on our streets, there would be 40 or 50 people on a block."

The media presented a different picture, he said.

"But instead, they were showing images from previous rallies, and a lot of times it was from the 75th rally, which was massive, and it would show our streets lined with thousands and thousands of people," Ainslie said. "I mean it was images that were over five years old. And people acted differently in 2015 than what they did in 2020.

"Once a bar or restaurant started to even feel full, people weren't going in," Ainslie added. "People spent most of the time outdoors, and they were out riding the hundreds and thousands of miles of amazing highways that we have, winding through canyons and the mountains."

People were counted as having contracted COVID-19 from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally when they had not even stopped in the town, Ainslie said.

"We had one individual that stated that they were just driving to Washington state, and they were driving along I-90, which of course runs through our community. And so, then they were counted as one of the Sturgis recipients, even though they didn't even stop in Sturgis, they just stopped a couple of hundred miles to the East and a couple of hundred miles to the West," Ainslie said. "But according to their state health official, apparently they were a Sturgis victim of the coronavirus."

Sturgis organizers had considered canceling the motorcycle rally, which is a significant tourist attraction for the city each year, but found that people planned to visit regardless of whether the city hosted it.

"For about two and a half months, we held a wide variety of town hall discussions," Ainslie said. "We also held telephone conferences with state health officials, with our local health officials here, everything else."

"Our surveys during the rally showed that over 70 percent of the people were going to come here, whether or not we officially hosted the rally. So, for a city of 7,000 people to host hundreds of thousands of people, there have to be preparations."

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